Weekly Go, 5/5/2064

Renowned pro Hikaru Shindo passed away two days ago at age 78, in his home. He was discovered by his grandson, Hiroshi Shindo, in his front hallway, apparently having suffered a stroke. An ambulance was called, but did not arrive in time. He is survived by his wife, Akari Shindo, one daughter, two grandchildren, and his long-time rival, Akira Touya, also 78.

Until his retirement twelve years ago, Shindo held the title of Honinbo, and was the holder of the highly contested Kisei title. He set the record for both the youngest Honinbo, winning the title at age 23, and the longest defense of the title, holding it for 15 years straight before losing it briefly to rival Akira Touya. The title of Kisei was passed between Shindo, Touya, and several others from Shindo's insei class. None of them defended it for more than a year, losing it each tournament to one of the others. For thirty years, they formed an impassable wall to aspiring title-holders.

The insei in Shindo's class overturned the Go world. At the time, it seemed like new, young geniuses were springing out of every corner. When they went pro, they ripped through older, established pros like so much sawdust, to form an unbreakable layer of stone across the highest points of the Go world. Even when they retired, they mentored new geniuses, including their own grandchildren. Now that the line is falling, who knows what new tremors will ripple over the tiers of the world of the goban?

The soul of Fujiwara-no-Sai is lonely.

His friends—those who knew him through Torajiro, as well as Torajiro himself, and those he knows from the Heian period, come by frequently to play. There is no logical reason that he should feel lonely. For nine hundred years, Go has been his life, his means of staying connected to the world. In the afterlife, that should not have changed.

No… he knows why he is lonely. In nine hundred years, the events that changed him the most occurred during three short years, nothing compared to the rest of his time.

But in that short period, something definitely did change. His personality remains virtually unaltered, and yet something is different. Perhaps it was the experience of teaching, watching from the sidelines, instead of competing.

All he knows is, he misses Hikaru. It's been sixty-three years (22995 days, 551880 hours) to the day since he faded. He still recalls his conversation with the being who controls this place—God, Allah, Buddha, Sky, nature spirits of various kinds. It refers to itself as a kami, although that may only be because it is a term he understands easily.

\\\///

"Send me back! Please!"

"You know I can't do that. Your time on earth has been extended far past its natural limit. And, after all, you can still play Go here."

"It's not for Go that I'm asking!"

A pause. Sai can sense surprise, although the being is not currently manifesting.

"Why do you wish to return, then?"

"…For Hikaru."

"Hikaru?"

"My student. I know I have given him the path to the Hand of God, the same thing I was seeking. But…"

He cannot seem to put words to his feelings. He wants to return, not to play more Go, but to watch Hikaru play. He knows that, eventually, Hikaru will surpass him, and he wants to see that happen. He also knows that he can watch the human world from this place, but he still wants to be back with Hikaru.

"You love Hikaru."

Sai starts back, the shock of the statement blanking his mind for a moment. "What? You think—I'm not—"

He feels the sigh, though there is no actual sound. "Humans and their unbreakable fixation on the physical. There are other forms of love than the romantic, you know. Your love for Hikaru is that of a teacher for a student, of an older sibling for a younger, and—in certain ways—a parent for a child. It is a decidedly strange mix."

"Then you will let me go back?" He's grasping at straws now.

"I still cannot. Even kami have rules. Now that you have come here, letting you return breaks several major ones."

"But—" I never got to say goodbye.

"Patience." The kami chooses this moment to manifest itself, a female form coalescing out of thin air. "Hikaru will be coming here sooner or later, as you did. You will find that time passes differently here—unevenly. Fast, slow, or normal, it is best not to think of how much time is passing in the human world."

She lays her hand on his shoulder. "Please. Know that I understand how you feel. I wish I could do something for you, but I cannot."

He looks down and away, reluctant to acknowledge it. He feels like a petulant child now, whining at a parent because something is not precisely to his liking. She is right—Hikaru will be here at some time, if not now, then later. He waited seven hundred years in the goban for Torajiro, and nearly two hundred more for Hikaru--two hundred years in which Torajiro waited for him. Waiting has taken up the majority of his life. He can bear a little more.

"I understand."

///\\\

He sighs, the movement echoed by a wind rippling across the grassland. It is his own area, responding to his wishes, as the configuration of the afterlife as a whole responds to the kami's. It is bare of animals right now, though he is accompanied by grassland creatures of all kinds when he wills it. The only other living thing—besides the grass and scattered trees—is a small, bright bird that perches on his goban. It never seems to disappear, even when he wills it to. He is not sure what it is—if it is a manifestation of Hikaru, or of his own soul, or something else entirely. It is certainly not a simple animal created by his personality.

For one thing, it can play Go.

He wouldn't put it past his subconscious to create a Go-playing bird, but it plays in a style that he never even imagined. It is not like Hikaru's style either, or Shusaku's. It may well be an entity in its own right. He puts it out of his mind for now.

The conversation of sixty-three years ago was a painful one. Several times, he had to resist the urge to go back and beg for another decision, especially when Hikaru stopped playing. That had broken his heart more than leaving in the first place—Hikaru had so much talent, and clearly wanted to play. Seeing him denying it, forcing himself to abandon Go, giving himself pain worse than any physical injury, for Sai's sake—it was horrible. Without even touching on how Sai would have felt, abandoning Go for six months.

He feels the familiar lump forming, the one that hovers somewhere between his throat and his chest. It comes every time he thinks of Hikaru. A light rain swishes over the landscape, reacting to his sadness. The little bird chirps softly.

His gaze falls on the old-style wooden flute next to the goban. If Go was his way of avoiding his emotions, losing himself in the ebb and flow of black and white, music was his way of expressing his emotions. He picks it up, fingers falling naturally into place on the holes. Closing his eyes, he begins to play, the low, haunting tones that suit the wood flute best.

Lost in the music, he doesn't notice when the bird chirps suddenly and flies away.

Hikaru's first sensation was of floating.

He opened his eyes. It was mildly surprising, seeing as he shouldn't have had eyes to open. But, he supposed, since there was an afterlife, he would probably have the same shape as he did when he was alive.

At least, it felt like the same shape. Roughly. He couldn't see; the world was surrounded in blackness. But it felt like the one he remembered best; his twelve-year-old shape. Complete with blond bangs, if the fact that they were showing up blueish rather than black was anything to go by.

Looking up, he noticed a slight tinge of cobalt filtering down from above. Something passed over it, blocking it out for nearly a minute. He shuddered at the thought of a creature that large.

He appeared to be underwater, sinking slowly. Hopefully, he wouldn't be eaten by another one of those huge things.

Of course, if he was underwater, it raised the question of how he was breathing. He considered this for a moment, deciding that since it was the afterlife, biology didn't necessarily apply.

The cobalt began to darken gradually, now navy, now black. Surrounding him, although he was unafraid.

His feet touched ground. It was ground, not ocean floor. There was grass on it. Slowly, the darkness lightened, revealing a sunny prairie.

Hikaru inhaled deeply. He didn't really need to, but old habits die hard.

The purity of the air surprised him. Having lived in a city of over twelve million people for all his life, filled with the stink of machines and smoke and people, he'd never known unpolluted air. He decided that he liked it. It tasted better than inhaling dilute of car exhaust.

Then he noticed the silence. It was completely quiet. Nothing else in the grassland. No giraffes, or zebra, or elephants, or birds. Or meerkats. He was slightly hazy on what exactly lived in grasslands, but he knew there was supposed to be something. Not just emptiness. Yellow grass and blue sky. With scattered trees.

Chiu?

Not quite empty, then. He looked up, directly into the face of a brightly colored songbird. It pecked him on the nose.

"Gah!" He fell backwards, startled by the sudden appearance of the bird. The sound seemed quieter than it should be, soaked up by the distance.

Chiu!

Standing up, he brushed himself off. "Awfully tame little bird, aren't you?"

Chi-chiu!

"Eh? You want something?"

Chi!

"Sorry, no food for you."

Chiuuu… It sounded frustrated. Was that even possible?

Chi! Chi-chi-chiu-chu!

"Umm…" He tried to think of what else a bird might want besides food. Wasn't there a dog that barked when it wanted someone to follow it? Rasi. Or something. Worth a shot, anyway.

"Follow you?"

Chi!

Okay, then. The bird flew off a short distance, and he followed it. As he caught up, it flew off again. The pattern followed for a while, how long exactly he didn't know. Time didn't seem to exist here.

The bird whistled, a much longer, complicated tune than it had used to talk to him. Suddenly a breeze picked up. The bird seemed satisfied with this, and continued leading him to wherever it was going.

Strange bird…

Suddenly his ears caught a distance sound. He paused, listening for it again. Music? It was coming from upwind of him. If there's music… There must be someone making the music. Right?

The bird chirped in satisfaction, flying far ahead of him. The closer he got to the source of the music, the hillier the terrain seemed to get—rather as if whatever had designed the grassland had centered all the detail on the musician, not bothering with the far edges of the territory. He was fairly athletic, but nonetheless he was panting by the time he crested the final hill.

And froze.

The musician was facing away from him, but Hikaru didn't need to see his face to recognize him. The long hair, the kimono with giant sleeves, the ridiculous tall hat.

"Sai," he whispered.

"SAI!" he yelled.

Running down the hill, faster and faster and he should slow down because if he sped up any more he'd fall and roll all the way down the hill but he didn't care, because it was Sai.

"Wha—Hikaru!" Sai was running too, until they collided with a force that would have definitely broken something if they hadn't both been dead already. And Hikaru was hugging Sai, and Sai was hugging him back, and they were both laughing and crying at the same time, and they probably would have crushed each other's ribcages if they'd still had ribcages to crush.

Finally they let go, gasping, even though they didn't need to breathe, still laughing.

"You…idiot," choked Hikaru. "I…missed…you!"

"I…know," gasped Sai. "I missed…you too."

Seeing Sai's face again, after so long (63 years, 22995 days, 551880 hours), a rush of memories overwhelmed Hikaru, almost simultaneously: The moment when he discovered Sai, the first game against Akira, the tournament where they beat Kaio. Becoming an insei, the Young Lions tournament, struggling his way up the rankings. The Pro exam, passing with Waya and Ochi. Sai's disappearance, spending three days racing around Japan with a bewildered Kawai-san, searching desperately, finding nothing… Quitting Go, and wanting desperately to play yet feeling that he'd never see Sai again if he did, the total despair that had nearly drowned him at the loss of his mentor, his best friend, his older brother, the father who he'd never really had.

He barely noticed that he was crying again, and under different circumstances he would have hated himself for it, having cried only twice in his life, but it wasn't normal circumstances.

Burying his face in the spirit's kimono, Hikaru wrapped his arms around Sai's waist, clinging like a child who has woken up from a horrible nightmare. He was sobbing now, whole body shaking, sixty-three years of missing the Go genius trying to force their way out all at once. After a moment, he heard rustling fabric, and Sai was holding him, rocking back and forth slightly with a calming motion, providing a point of stability, when Hikaru hardly knew which was up or down, like a parent soothing the nightmare-ridden child—something Hikaru's parents had never really done for him, his father being away most of the time, and his mother not really knowing how to handle a child on her own.

"Why did you leave?" Hikaru sobbed into Sai's kimono. "I missed you. I looked everywhere, and you weren't there. Where did you go?"

"Ssh, it's okay… It's okay, Hikaru. I'm here now."

"Promise you won't leave again?"

"I promise. I'll never leave again. Don't worry."

A low, calming humming filtered through Hikaru's mind, relaxing his trembling shoulders and his death-grip on Sai's kimono. It took him a moment to realize that the ghost was singing.

"Nenneko shasshari mase,
Neta ko no kawaisa.
Okite naku ko no
Nenkororo, tsura nikusa.
Nenkororon, nenkororon.

Nenneko shasshari mase,
Kyou wa nijuugo-nichi sa.
Asu wa kono ko no,
Nenkororo, Miya-mairi.
Nenkororon, nenkororon."

The music touched some deep corner of Hikaru's mind, reacting with some ancient, reptilian instinct, vibrating warmly around the tight knot of emotion and slowly loosening it until it was completely gone. Hikaru relaxed slightly, no longer clutching at Sai's kimono, but still unwilling to leave the umbrella of protection that the spirit provided.

"Don't ever leave again," he said, muffled slightly.

"I won't, Hikaru." The spirit smiled slightly. He had never had children, but if he had... He would have liked Hikaru to be his son.

"Sai?"

"Yes?"

"Can I call you Otou-san?"

Sai started. Hikaru couldn't have read his mind, could he have?

"Sai?"

He felt something in his chest--a warm, syrupy feeling, not entirely unpleasant, but incredibly painful in a strange way. And…There was another feeling, much more deeply rooted in his psyche, a sense of protectiveness, wanting to defend the small creature in his arms at all costs, up to and including that of his life. It was impossible, no human could feel this strongly about something, and yet he did…

Hikaru looked up, alarm showing on his face as he saw the tears in his mentor(friend, brother, parent)'s eyes. "Sai?!"

The spirit smiled warmly, tasting salt. He reached up, brushing the hair out of Hikaru's eyes gently. "Yes. Yes, Hikaru. I would like that very much."

Chiu!